Li Shangfu and Wei Fenghe Disciplined:Rocket Force Corruption Case Closed

Release Date : 2024-06-28

(Chang Ching, Research Fellow, Society for Strategic Studies R.O.C.)

The Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held a plenary meeting on Jun 27, during which it reviewed and approved “Report on the Review and Result and Handling Suggestion of Li Shangfu’s Issue” and “Report on the Review and Result and Handling Suggestions of Wei Fenghe’s Issue” submitted by the Central Military Commission (CMC). News regarding these two cases were released separately through the official Xinhua News Agency following the meeting. It indicated that the investigation involving the corruption in the Rocket Force initiated since July 2023 has come to a final stage of closing. 

Due to the extensive connections and widespread attentions this case has attracted, there are numerous detailed public reports which will not be further elaborated. The followings are some proposed points worthy of in-depth commenting and analysis, your responses and feedback are welcome. 

Firstly, it must be noted that despite many observers of China believing that the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) of the Air University (AU) of the US detailly listed the force structure and basic information of China’s Rocket Force in its publication PLA Rocket Force Organization on October 24, 2022, leading to Zhongnanhai’s suspicions of leaking classified information by high-level officials of the Rocke Force; therefore, actions of investigation were taken, exposing the additional case of corruption and graft taking inside the Rocket Force.

However, according to the current available investigation information relating to individuals involved in this case, there are no reference to any involvement of leaking secrets or conspiracy of treason. In addition, the above-mentioned US publication includes detailed citations and references of all information, that basically is a product of collections and compilation of public intelligence. It would be incomplete and difficult to verify and allege any involvements of US espionage or leaking secrets by the PLA in this case.

It also needs to be noted that the case was first exposed in July 2022 and strictly speaking, the specific indicator was when the CMC issued “Notice on Soliciting Clues of Irregularities and Violations in the Procurement Bidding Evaluation of the Entire Forces’ Equipment” through the Military Equipment Procurement Information Web on July 26. The Rocket Force might have been targeted as focus of investigation in that time, but the PLA did not explicitly identify it when calling for reporting irregularities and violations.

As for the death of Wu Guohua, Deputy Commander of the Rocket Force, on July 4, 2023, lots of medias believe it was because of speculations on social medias of his suicide by hanging, not as the official obituary claiming illness as the cause, that led to the investigations of various malpractices inside the Rocket Force. Upon reviewing the post by Zhang Xiaoyang, son of former CMC Deputy Commander Zhang Zhen, it never implied that the death of Wu was a suicide of guilt due to malpractice. The reports of many medias are obviously inaccurate, with too many rumors and over linking.

The scope and severity of this case has obviously made Xi Jinping express his solemn stance toward the PLA. In retrospect of June 17-19, Xi Jinping proactively called the Political Work Conference of the CMC, during which, judging from his speech and instructions, he evidently announced to the attending high-level officials of the PLA that the CMC would subsequently submit reports on the cases involving Li Shangfu and Wei Fenghe for the review by the Central Political Bureau. However, there was no signs before holding this conference, and no words about the disciplinary measures of the cases afterwards, indicating that the PLA’s discipline and adherence to secrecy cannot be underestimated.

The case has been under two-year investigation, and gone through several personnel adjustments during the process, with gradual purges of persons involved, covering senior officials of the PLA’s Rocket Force, Navy, Air Force, and Equipment Development Department and further extending to significant figures in military-industrial enterprises such as weaponry industrial group, aerospace science and technology group, and aerospace science and industry group. It has demonstrated the strong determination of the top leaders in Zhongnanhai to thoroughly investigate this case.   

From the process of personnel purge and reorganization, whether the case can be fully scrutinized remains a question. Since many persons involved and under investigation have left their original posts, it would be difficult to sort out the whole case of collective corruption and bribery within the Rocket Force if not tracing back the context of personnel deployment and promotion and clearing up their then affiliations. This systematic collaboration involving military-industrial complex (MIC) in corrupt practices is worth further analysis by intelligence systems, in the hope to infer the extent of impact on the combat capabilities of the Rocket Force.  

Finally, it comes to discuss why this case needs to be concluded in this time. The Third Plenary Session of The 20th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is scheduled to convene in Beijing from July 15 to 18. In the news release regarding handling Li Shangfu and Wei Fenghe, it specially noted that Li’s party membership would be revoked, pending for a subsequent approval at the Plenary Session of the Central Committee since Li still holds the qualification as the Central Committee member.

It comes to our attention that the corruption case within the Rocket Force does involve considerable high-levels and widespread individuals, but the operation of China’s system has not fallen into chaos. It still proceeds systematically in accordance with various regulations and laws to complete the disciplinary procedures of this case. Even though it needs Xi Jinping to make decision in person to call the Political Work Conference of the CMC to express his stance due to the severity of the case, the discipline failure has not led to the collapse of the PLA system. It requires a balanced judgment and to keep observing cautiously.

Translated to English by Tracy Chou